Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642

A bust-length portrait of Galileo, in his early 40s, dressed in black and turned slightly to the left but looking directly at the viewer. He has closely cropped hair, with a full beard, and the top left corner of the neutral background bears an inscription, not necessarily by the artist, 'GALLILEUS / GALLILEUS / MATHUS:' (i.e., 'mathematicus'). Born in Pisa, Galileo was the Italian astronomer and experimental philosopher who, among other things, worked on enhancing the power of the refracting telescope. This made it possible for him to see that the Moon had mountains and Jupiter had satellites, although his astronomical theories brought him into famous controversy with the Catholic church.

From 1592 to 1610 he was (as the inscription shows) a master of mathematics, at Padua, as this portrait represents him. It is the earliest surviving painting of him: a slightly earlier one by Santi de Tito (d. 1603) is not now known but was engraved by Rafaello Morghen (d. 1833) in the early 19th century.

The present example has a longstanding attribution to the Venetian artist Domenico Robusti - called 'Tintoretto', as was his more famous father, Jacopo. This has been perpetuated by its association with an oval-format engraving first published in 1820 in the second volume of 'Vite e ritratti d'illustri italiani' (pub. Bettoni, Milan). The print was engraved by Natale Schiavoni based on a copy drawing by Giuseppe Bossi and the inscription states it to be 'after a lost portrait of Tintoretto' (i.e., Domenico). Despite slight variations in the print, attributable to copying, they are certainly related.

In February 2008, however, in an article in the Paduan magazine 'Padova e il suo territorio' (no. 131, pp. 24-26), Vincenzo Mancini made a good case on contextual and stylistic evidence that the artist of this portrait is not the younger Tintoretto but Francesco Apollodoro of Padua, perhaps as early as about 1602. Apollodoro (c. 1531-1612, and also called 'di Porcia' from his address) was then at the height of his career as official portraitist to both the municipal elite there, and the favoured one of the intellectual circle in which Galileo was involved. The article was illustrated by photographs of BHC2699 (though the author did not then know its whereabouts), a 1607 print after Apollodoro of G.V. Pinelli of Padua, and his painting of an unknown man now in the Museo Civico, Padua, with mention of the existence of others similar.

Allowing for differences of sitter, the other two are clearly of the same type as BHC2699, and the style of the Paduan oil convincingly similar. The context cited in favour of Apollodoro is also persuasive - though he is as yet little studied, more needs to be known and opinion on the matter is not unanimous.

The same article cites a note, published in 1914 by the Galilean scholar Antonio Favaro, of a portrait then in the collection of Edith Chapman, as the likely source of the Schiavoni engraving: the dimensions then given for it are effectively identical (65.5 x 53.3 cm). It also notes the reappearance of the same portrait in George Gabb's collection by 1929. In both cases it was seen and reported by another well-known Galilean specialist, J.J. Fahie, and in both he repeated the Tintoretto attribution. Fahie's 1929 notes further add that it was discovered and purchased in the last quarter of the 19th century by a Mr Reeve, before passing to Edith Chapman, and in 1919 to Gabb. (We are grateful to Dr Federico Tognoni for updated details on this matter: for his published comments maintaining the 'Domenico Tintoretto (?)' attribution see 'Iconografia Galileiana' (Le Opere di Galileo Galilei': Appendice, vol 1, Florence, 2013) in which it is item D2, pp. 27-28.)

If the present portrait was Bossi's source it must have been in Italy when he drew it, which could have been well before his death in 1815, but we do not know if he believed it a copy of a 'lost Tintoretto' or the 'original' that became untraceable again before completion of the 1820 print. If Bossi worked from another copy this is no longer known and BHC2699 - which was certainly Gabb's - may be the supposed 'original' Tintoretto. In either case, the Domenico Tintoretto attribution probably goes back into the 18th century.

This portrait is one of a group of three in oil and two busts of Galileo that were in the Gabb collection - mainly of scientific instruments - when it was purchased en bloc for the Museum by Sir James Caird in 1937. For the other oil portraits, see BHC2700 and BHC2701.

Object Details

ID: BHC2699
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Robusti, Domenico; Apollodoro, Francesco
Date made: circa 1602-07; circa 1605-07
Exhibition: Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude
People: Galilei, Galileo
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, Caird Collection
Measurements: Frame: 911 mm x 796 mm x 85 mm;Overall: 12.8 kg;Painting: 660 mm x 533 mm

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